Sunday, September 26, 2010


Money laundering is a "clock and dagger" operation indulged by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, mostly in developing countries like India. Recent turmoil in Indian politics about money laundering was started by the declaration of one of the parties that it would get back billions of dollars of "black" money (tax evaded), stashed away in safe tax havens and secret bank accounts in countries like Switzerland though such promises can at best be rhetoric with no intention to do any thing once these wily politicians climb to power. Why such a practice is called money laundering is any body's guess because such wealth can never be used within the country legally. A new laundering scheme is now reported to be in operation in international trade in honey. Probably it does not make any sense prima facie unless one delves deep into mystery.

China, the so called neo economic power admired and envied even by powerful developed countries happens to be the fulcrum around which honey laundering is reported to be taking place. A nation with practically no scruples and a single agenda to expand its hegemonic power around the world, China is a country where unscrupulous fraudsters and adulterators thrive, probably with state patronage. Other wise it is hard to imagine how milk can be tainted with Melamine, a toxic chemical endangering the life of thousands of unsuspecting children. China is known for its cheap products turned out by state owned as well as private operators but its safety monitoring system is not above board as brought out by series of episodes covering many foods. Latest to "bejewel" the crown of the rulers in China is the unraveling of a gigantic fraud on consumers around the world through honey produced in that country using antibiotics and palming them off as products from other countries to evade suspicion and avoid duties in importing countries.

The two main actors in this "game of intrigue" are China and the US. Honey production in the US has been declining over the years and cheap Chinese honey was able to fill the void till 1998 when Chinese honey industry was practically destroyed due serious infection problem. The US stopped import of honey from China because of tainting with antibiotics used by the bee keepers to salvage the local industry. Besides there is an import duty element of $ 1.2 per pound for Chinese honey while the same product from countries like Russia does not attract any duty. Recent arrest of 11 persons from China and Germany opened up a can of worms and only now the full ramifications of this "Chines game of Roulette" are exposed. German companies buy cheap honey from China, marginally process them by removing pollens and filtration to obliterate the Chinese identity and to further confuse the importing countries Chinese honey is blended with Indian honey with a dose of the antibiotics Chloramphenicol to prevent spoilage. According to the US authorities the country lost about $80 million on account of duties on over 106 illegal shipments valued at $40 million during the last several years.

Chinese and their collaborators in this devious game used counties like Australia, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam for transshipment of Chinese honey and enter Europe, the US and Canada without raising any doubt about its origin. In a country like India, honey imported from any country is not subjected to inspection as long as it is declared as exportable. While presence of an antibiotic like Chloramphenicol in small concentrations might not pose any immediate problem, the real cause of worry is the camouflage used by China in exporting its products to countries where they are banned through the intricate web they have spun to avoid detection and if it is honey to day it can be some thing else tomorrow in order to accumulate huge foreign currency reserve it is building up to lord over other lesser economic powers.

India has joined the "elite" honey countries where antibiotics have been detected in honey. If the reports of a local consumer activist organization are to be believed, almost all major branded honey products in the market contained Chloramphenicol at levels varying from 3.7 ug to 250 ug per kg and even imported samples from Australia and Switzerland had this antibiotic at much higher levels. In fact the Indian honey brands do "better" than their Chinese counterparts in that not one but four different antibiotics were found to be present in Indian honey!. Since the manufacturers of these honey brands are not forthcoming on the issue it is difficult to come to any conclusion regarding the origin of these tainted products. Is it possible that Indian apiaries have learned the "technique" of lacing honey with antibiotics from their Chines counter parts as China has plenty of admirers in this country applauding what ever they do. If there is a country standard for honey with clear and unambiguous parameters it must be considered sacred and no one has the authority to violate them what ever be the justification.

The last aspect of this sordid saga is whether such tainted honey is injurious to human health. Of course since a daily dose of about 500 mg is prescribed routinely to treat human infections, one teaspoon of tainted honey, containing less than 5 ug which is one thousandth of the prescription strength, may not do much harm. What is not known is about the consequences one may experience if such honey is consumed every day, especially on the gut health and dynamics of intestinal bacteria. This aspect needs to be investigated before considering any policy of giving green signal for marketing antibiotic treated honey for human consumption.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010


India's school lunch program is internationally hailed as one of the most enduring social commitments though there are lot of critics who question the efficiency of the entire system. According to the avowed policies of Government of India (GOI), no child should remain hungry due to poverty and huge funds are earmarked regularly in the annual budgets for meeting the expenditure involved in supplying foods in schools and other institutions specifically for children and other vulnerable populations like pregnant women. Providing meals at the schools is supposed to have the added advantage of attracting young children to educational centers to achieve universal literacy and prevent alarming drop out rates. According to official statistics there are about 220 million children of school going age, 4-12 years but about 5% are left out because of many social and economic factors. Leaving out almost a million children from the human resource pool of the country cannot be justified under any governing system and it was hoped that providing good meals during the lunch time would increase the school enrollment significantly.

During early stages of applied nutrition programs in the country, there was preference for processed foods because of ease of handling and account keeping. The Energy Food "era" which covered a substantial portion of the student population could not last with many vested interests blaming the the quality and monotony of the dry product which were not "liked" by the beneficiaries and the hot food craze that started in Tamilnadu was touted as a better alternative though such a concept was fraught with logistical nightmares. The unclean environment in school facilities, shortage of clean water, necessity for cooking fuels and other input materials and the personnel need for cooking were all considered constraining factors. It was realized that mid-day school food program could also create local employment which made the policy makers to lean towards the "hot meal" proposition. With meager financial allocation per child the benefits derived were found to be not up to the expectation and soaring food inflation contributed further to this sense of inadequacy. An allocation of less than Rs 3 per child cannot be expected to provide sufficient calories, protein and other nutrients, let alone the desirable taste appreciated by the beneficiaries. This is where the help and cooperation of Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) with credibility and good track record was sought by GOI.

One of the most remarkable successes in the joint endeavor for providing school lunches was by the International Society for Krishna Conscience (ISKCON) which changed the way the program was being conceived in Delhi. If one can keep aside the religious or cult image of ISKCON, the track record of this NGO was spectacular after it was roped in as a partner by the government. Even there was an image make over when ISKCON floated a separate trust by name Food for Life Foundation to run the school feeding program. Its Akshaya Patra program, being run in seven states covers 6500 schools and 1 million children which of course is a small drop in the ocean. But it has shown the way how the program can be run on modern lines with quality and safety of foods supplied to the schools better than any thing the children have ever tasted in their life. Serving rice or roti, sambar or dal and curd unlimited, to provide at least 550 kCals in hot condition with steaming aroma emanating from the prepared foods, the program has already established its USP as far as children are concerned. Compare this with the GOI norm to provide only 360 kilo calories which cannot be expected to extinguish the hunger in the belly.

Another dimension to this remarkable endeavor is the technological break-through achieved by the organizers in revolutionizing the preparation technology and the 14 kitchens run by them are technological marvels. Each kitchen equipped with industrial steam generators, large mechanized vegetable cutters, huge pumps capable of transferring liquid foods like dal and sambar at mind boggling rate and the 3-level gravity based flow process, has capacity ranging from 50000 to 250000 meals a day. Though most handling is by mechanized systems, there is an employment content here with each kitchen having 150 to 300 workers on its roll. Remarkably some of these kitchens are even ISO certified while the Foundation is planing to engage consultants for quality and safety auditing on a regular basis in future. The hot products from these are delivered in stainless containers to the schools directly in specially designed vans to be served hot to the students in their own environment.

It is realized that such huge kitchens can serve only urban schools whereas thousands of schools in rural areas cannot benefit from such facilities. The decentralized kitchen concept now being tried out for supply of foods to beneficiaries numbering less than 5000 in large areas creates small scale cooking facilities near the schools run by women's Self Help Group, train the cooks on good manufacturing practices and inculcate accountability for supply of raw material inputs. If such a movement takes root, the astronomical investment made on this social transformation project could be considered well spent.

Involvement of ISKCON appears to be evoking some hostility amongst some critics who blame them for economic exploitation and even some court cases are pending in Karnataka where one of the politicians has been arraigned for defamation by ISKCON for making unsubstantiated allegations. On a critical look at the economics of the program it is seen that each meal prepared costs about Rs 4.68 and government budget provides only Rs 2.64, rest absorbed by the organizers raising donations from corporations and individuals all around the world. The vision on the part of ISKCON to reach a target of 5 million children is praise worthy and as long as they are accountable for the donations from the public as well as the government funds received as per country's laws, there should not be any objection to their mission. Probably more NGOs must come forward to create models like this to serve the future needs of the children of this country.


Sunday, September 19, 2010


Food industry is facing increasing risks in sustaining itself because of safety concerns sprouting up every day due to new discoveries and emerging knowledge in food science and toxicology. Never heard of chemicals such as Acrylamide have been in the news during the last one decade with no definite conclusions from the scientific community regarding the extent of threat perception posed by these newly "focused" chemical artifacts produced during processing. Unfortunately in spite of consistent efforts in several countries, Acrylamide, formed in many foods during thermal processing under low moisture conditions, has not been established as a threat to consumer safety. It may be recalled that Acrylamide was detected in many foods by Swedish scientists in 2002 and since then thousands of publications appeared, covering practically all aspects of this chemical. Those foods containing the amino acid Asparagine and high starches were found to generate Acrylamide under frying and baking temperatures, probably through the well known Maillard reaction route or the "browning" phenomenon. Though many scary stories emerged regarding its role in human cancers in nervous system, oral cavity, peritoneum, thyroid gland, mammalian gland, uterus etc, these claims were found to based on experiments in animals like mice using doses 900 times higher than possible exposure by humans through the industry produced food products like potato chips!

Food safety is a holy cow and it is very common to talk about the food safety, giving the benefit always to consumer activists who articulate such concerns. Logic is often thrown to winds when tall claims are made regarding safety of foods and ingredients that go into the food during its making. It is often forgotten that eating a food is always risky and such risks can come from processed foods as well as those cooked at home. Decision to ban a particular food has to be taken based on a scientific risk-benefit analysis and not on risk alone. Taking the case of Acrylamide itself, concerns regarding consumer safety are understandable, scaling up the tempo of opposition to fanatical levels is not all justified based on current evidence. Think about thousands of products consumed in India for centuries which were invariably prepared based on raw materials rich in proteins and carbohydrates and probably Acrylamide has been a part of these foods prepared under high temperature conditions for long duration. Baked foods have been in use in western countries since time immemorial and people have not been dying at alarming rate because of cancer. Modern analytical tools have made detection and quantification easier and more accurate but this does not justify raising unnecessary concerns regarding their presence in food.

Now comes a new scare that may rattle the industry further regarding the presence of a new set of chemical artifacts in processed foods and beverages called Furans which are reported to be capable of causing cancer and liver toxicity. Furans refer to a group of chemicals belonging to the group of dioxins and furans. The chlorinated dibenzo furans are implicated in toxicity in animal studies though the levels at which they were used in such experiments are very high. They are formed in foods during processing and being volatile can escape from the finished products by stirring or after a lapse of some time. Oxidation of poly unsaturated fatty acids and similar compounds, decomposition of ascorbic acid derivatives and some carbohydrates can contribute to formation of furans in many foods processed at temperatures beyond 100C. Furans provide typical aroma and taste in many foods and are present in products like roasted coffee powder, canned foods, infant foods, baby foods, puffed rice, fish products, meat products, tomato soups, milk products etc at low concentration levels. Ground coffee can contain Furans as high as 6900 ug per kg while in instant coffee it comes down to 602 ug per kg. Ready to serve coffee beverage can contain about 100 ug of Furans. They are relatively low in milk products like infant foods in the range of 3-40 ug per kg.

Between 2004 and 2009, sustained cooperation amongst some of the countries under a single project generated data on Furans in over 4000 samples belonging to 21 food categories. The reproducability of these data may be tricky because of the high volatility of these chemicals and the possibility of significant reduction of active levels during the interval between opening of the food pack and preparation of test samples. Similarly there can be significant changes in the levels of Furans between original products and preparation of ready to consume final product. It may be reassuring to note the stand of the USFDA which felt that Furans, at this stage does not warrant any concern and cannot be considered as a threat to consumer health. Similarly Canadian Health authorities have taken the stand that present level of knowledge does not call for any change in the dietary practices in that country because of furans in foods.

The million dollar question is whether there should be any concern at all in India where probably people consume foods which are over processed under high temperature conditions. If a product like condensed milk can contain furans at levels of 80 ug per kg, what would be the condition of products like khoa and khoa based products which are made by open kettle heating over long periods or a product like tomato puree made by concentration without vacuum. If poly unsaturated fatty acids are precursors, frying in oils from soy bean and others with high oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids content can contribute to generation of furans. As the information on Furans in Indan foods is not yet available, it may be worthwhile for an institution like National Institute of Nutrition at Hyderabad to look into this area for at least putting the issue at right perspectives.


Thursday, September 16, 2010


Eggs are in the news lately for all wrong reasons. There was the massive recall of more than half a billion eggs suspected of salmonella contamination in the US. Packed battery cages used for housing the birds in industrial poultry farms became an emotive issue attracting the attention of a wide segment of consumer population forcing some governments to ban such practices and prescribe mandatory standards for such cages. Considering that eggs are invariably consumed after cooking, minor bacterial contamination should not pose any serious health hazard. But in western countries there are "cold" products that do not undergo the required 72C heating during preparation and they can be risky to consumers, especially those whose immune system is not strong and other vulnerable population. Pasteurized eggs are now available in some markets though they are more expensive. Similarly organic eggs also are supposed to be safe though how they get rid of poultry house contaminants without using chemicals is not known.

Detailed investigations into the egg contamination episode in the US by the authorities concerned revealed how negligent the poultry farms were in managing the operations and the feed storage areas as well as nearby facilities which were heavily infested with rats, considered a major source of Salmonella contamination. The cages were not sterilized periodically as required under good manufacturing practices and birds were over packed in cages giving no room for them even to stand. Under such primitive conditions it is no wonder the eggs from these farms were contaminated. The consequences of such tainted eggs getting into the kitchen raises the possibility of cross contamination to other foods stored together. The egg washing operations which are supposed to remove bulk of the contamination also could have been compromised. It is supposed to be a standard practice for the freshly laid eggs to be washed using detergents and chlorine to disinfect them before sending to the market.

Pasteurized eggs are produced by exposing the eggs to a temperature of 62C to 72C for a period go 3-5 minutes but it requires great caution as just 15 cells of a pathogen would be adequate for causing food-borne illness. It generally takes 6 hours to 48 hours after consuming an infected egg, to see the manifestation of sickness through symptoms like nausea, vomiting, stomach cramp, head ache and diarrhea. As per FDA rules a 5-log reduction is necessary if it takes 3-log reduction to destroy the pathogens. Standard practices of washing followed by coating of the eggs with special mineral oil formulations can be expected to keep the egg free of contamination and arrest quality deteriorating changes at a temperature of 4C. Natural egg has a bloom that covers the surface, protects the contents from ingress of pathogens through the micro pores and development of air cells with aging, deteriorating the over all quality of the egg. Development of egg coating oil formulations is intended for use after the egg is washed and dried which replaces the natural bloom that decomposes with time and affords same protection as the bloom. How ever very few practice egg coating because of the tediousness of the process and productivity constraints.

Recent development of a rapid cooling technology with potential for commercial application appears to be a promising new approach for making eggs safe for consumption. According to the present guidelines cooling of eggs is useful in preventing microbial proliferation but the period within which egg has to be cooled is not clearly spelt. It takes almost a week for the eggs in a large pallet to attain a temperature of 4C at which Salmonella can no longer grow. This is because the egg temperature, when they are packed in cartons, remains high around 38C which can be favorable for growth of pathogens. It is estimated that one in every 20,000 eggs would be contaminated and these eggs mostly hail from the center of the cartons where low temperatures are not attained easily during cooling.

The new technology uses conditions around -50 to -70C in a CO2 atmosphere to reach the freezing temperature of albumin when a thin layer of ice is formed in the shell-albumin boundary and under such a condition egg is supposed to be free from pathogens. Besides this rapid cooling which takes hardly 90 seconds doubles the shelf life of the egg, from 6-8 weeks to 12-15 weeks. The cryogenic CO2 cooling is claimed to cost only 2-5 cents per dozen eggs under commercial conditions. According to safety experts if the eggs are cooled to 7C within 12 hours of laying, the Salmonella poisoning can be reduced by almost 80%. Though technically it is a viable process its economic dimensions need to be worked out, especially the investment part of it before it can become the industry standard.


Monday, September 13, 2010


Food laws in India never keep in tune with developments in other parts of the world. This is a fact known to the food industry in the country for the last 6 decades and such inflexible and delay causing procedures are bottlenecks facing new product development by the R & D scientists and the industry's in-house programs. The Ministry of Health of GOI endowed with the power to regulate food industry safety enforcement portfolio, invariably is more concerned with medicinal and drug related policy issues, leaving very little time to focus on food related safety and standards area. The Central Committee for Food Standards, working under the Health Ministry, had the mandate to evolve food standards but every one involved with food industry development knows how difficult it has been to move this body to get any approval for new products and innovations.

It is rather sad that the Health Ministry has left to a few bureaucrats to deal with food industry and under the archaic system of committees and sub-committees in which "specialist experts" are supposed to be members, decisions are taken over a long period of time with least sensitivity to the urgency of the industry seeking approval for new products and their labeling. This situation is especially frustrating because the body has the guidelines from several countries, International Standards Organization and WHO-FAO Alimentarius Commission (CAC) for reference and modification if necessary under Indian conditions. With WTO regime controlling world trade and dispute settlement amongst member countries, is it not incumbent upon the government to be ready with data and information on any food product that is made in any part of the world for arriving at a quick conclusion on requests from the industry for approval?

Of course there are hundreds of ethnic products in the country that may not have parallel in other countries for getting any guidance but whose fault it is that the concerned agencies never bothered to generate standards of safety for these products so far? After all ethnic foods have been in the market for decades and thousands of restaurants catering to the traditional palates have been making them. These restaurants also come under the vigilance system of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1956 and it is a mystery as to why it has not occurred to the Health Ministry authorities that stringent safety related standards are necessary to regulate the catering industry which affects the lives of millions of people. Even now in stead of taking years to decide on any particular issue, why cannot the Ministry ask the petitioner seeking permission to provide full information based on practices in other countries and its own data base, that will expedite a decision?

The recent notification by FSSAI regarding use of synthetic sweeteners is provocation enough to raise the above issues. While GOI had allowed use of four synthetic sweeteners more than a decade ago, the latest clearance pertains to use of a particular combination of two food additives, as per the request filed by some beverage industry players having a heavy stake in the country's beverage market. Though delays in according permission to such very innocuous request are justified under the pretext that "thorough review is needed" in the interest of consumer safety, it is beyond comprehension as to why years roll by before any decision is taken. Why not adopt the entire WHO-FAO CAC standards for the country and modify from time to time in areas where special consideration is needed? Why cannot the GOI direct institutions like CFTRI, DFRL, AGMARK and other technical institutions to take up on priority to evolve some basic standards including safety parameters for all major Indian traditional foods within a reasonable period of 3-5 years?

Interestingly the list of approval for synthetic sweeteners does not include others like Stevia, a natural plant based sweetener which are being used widely in many other countries. Why India should consider using combinations of sweeteners already approved objectionable is not clear? As long as the limits are prescribed, safety cleared additives should be allowed for use in any combinations found technically desirable, unless there are contraindications regarding their safety. There are consumer activists who could raise objections for use of some of the synthetic sweeteners because of lack of consensus on the "absolute" safety of any one of them but existing data is considered adequate and as long as the limits of daily consumption are adhered to, it is unlikely that they would cause any serious health impairment. Also to be kept in mind is the dire need for millions of people who are sugar-compromised and obese, requiring non-metabolizable substitutes to lead a reasonable quality of life. As long as label declarations are made and such products are differentiated from main stream products, no one should have any objection against synthetic sweeteners approved by WHO-FAO CAC.


Sunday, September 12, 2010


Women and old people after the age of 60 years are prime candidates for Calcium supplements as they are considered vulnerable to bone related problems that include thin bones, brittle bones, frequent fractures, misshaped bones, osteomalacia and osteoporosis. Normally these supplements are supposed to deliver 500-800 mg Calcium per day. As Calcium is involved in formation and growth of bones, routinely these supplements are prescribed by orthopedists to many people and excess intake is not considered harmful hitherto. While high intake of Calcium is not known to be toxic, what other adverse effect it can have is a matter of conjecture with different reports indicating divergent views. Though a daily intake of 700 mg of Calcium is recommended for sound bone health, most of this requirement comes from every day foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, greens, leafy vegetables and fish with edible bones like sardines. It is believed that many older people do not get enough of this mineral increasing the risk of osteoporosis leading to thin and weak bones which can break easily, Same is true with women also at even younger ages due to hormonal changes during menopause. It is acknowledged that intake of Calcium supplements does increase bone strength but what is doubtful is whether it will really prevent fracture.

According to a recent review of some of the best scientific papers on Calcium in New Zealand, excess intake of this mineral can have other unintended consequences which calls for a re-look at the way Calcium supplements are prescribed in a routine way without realizing the long term consequences. Supplying Calcium over and above the intake through the food route can increase the risk of heart attack and strokes as increased levels of Calcium can affect the heart functions adversely, at least in some people. A study of 12000 people taking Calcium supplements, more than 500 mg per day regularly, has indicated that they faced a 30% increased chance of a heart attack during the period they took the supplement. Treatment of 1000 people with calcium supplements for a period of 5 years is estimated to cause 14 heart attacks, 10 strokes and 13 deaths but can prevent 26 fractures. also alarming is the finding that vulnerability to heart attack increased with higher dosage of Calcium supplement.Though the conclusion of the study is indeed alarming, a more careful analysis of the data indicates that out of the 12000 participants on Calcium supplement only 166 had heart attacks while 130 under the control and how significant this can be is uncertain. But qualitatively it does show the relevance or otherwise, of Calcium supplements in general, especially amongst those with even mild heart disease. As these studies were based on double-blinded controlled trials, there is no doubt about their reliability. Deciding on the risk-benefit aspects of Calcium supplements is indeed a tricky task. While bone fractures are not generally fatal, heart attacks can be and hence the dilemma for the health authorities in taking any decision.

One of the variables that has not been taken into consideration is about the complimentary effect of Vitamin D on the effect of Calcium intake as both of them are prescribed in most of the case because of the involvement of the former in bone development. Calciferol ( Vitamin D) is a critical vitamin formed under the skin from precursors already present in the body through exposure to Ultra Violet rays in the wave length range 270-300 nm and its bio-active form Calcitriol is known to reduce inflammation. Now that a shadow of doubt has been cast on the safety of Calcium supplements, it is necessary that these findings are validated through more thorough scientific studies to arrive at a reliable conclusion.


Friday, September 10, 2010


Food technologists confront the problem of oxidative rancidity in foods containing unsaturated fats and deploy a few chemicals that can retard the oxidative reaction. But use of these preservatives is always fraught with controversies with many consumer activists opposing their use under the impression that they can cause health damage to the consumers. That organized industry uses only those additives in food which are permitted legally is often forgotten in the debate about its safety. The food safety authorities world over and the WHO Codex Commission are fully aware about the implications of permitting such chemicals and the consumer has to have confidence on their objectivity in deciding about the desirability or other wise about the use of chemical additives in food.

When it comes to edible oils, the relative deterioration in quality is caused by either oxidation or hydrolysis which can affect the flavor and eating quality of the product very significantly besides causing temporary discomforts as well as some adverse health consequences. Food industry working on foods with sufficiently long life necessary for standing the rigors of modern marketing system have to resort to their stabilization which is achieved some time only with use of chemicals. But for the use of antioxidant chemicals many fat containing foods will not last even for a few hours let alone months. A distinction has to be made between freshly consumed fried foods and others intended for upcountry markets through the vast market network. Also desirable is protection of frying oils from oxidation during the thermal process for which stabilizers are needed.

Recent controversy regarding the use of Tertiary Butylated Hydro Quinone (TBHQ) in Chicken Nuggets offered by McDonald's to Chinese customers through its 1135 outlets through out that country touches the core of the problem. Interestingly the Chinese Health Authorities did not raise any objection to the use of TBHQ as it is permitted in that country at 0.02% on the basis of fat content but a stray report that same nuggets served in the UK did not contain TBHQ raised the ire amongst the Chinese customers, blown out of proportion by some activists and the vocal media. It was pointed out that TBHQ can cause cancer in animals though available scientific evidence does not support such a stand. A stray report even mentioned that 1 gm of TBHQ can create severe problems if consumed without bothering to check the fact as to how much chicken nuggets will have to be consumed to ingest such a large amount. A huge and unimaginable quantity of about 5 kg of nuggets at one go! While Chines authorities did assure the public that TBHQ is safe, a rider was issued along with, advising the citizens to avoid eating such products for long time as the chemical has the property to accumulate in the body with consequent adverse effect. China itself is in the global market selling TBHQ at relatively low price for use by food industry as well as other industries.

According to food experts, nuggets made in the UK uses a precooking procedure while in the US, China and other places the chemical concoction is pre-coated before frying. What difference it makes is not clear though the UK version is said to be absorbing less oil during frying. Why the company has a different process in the UK is a mystery though it might have some thing to do with the taste preference of British consumers. A serious allegation raised against TBHQ was that it is some form of Butane, a hydrocarbon considered harmful to humans but these critics forget that it is totally different from Butane and even the every day consuming butter also contains Butyrates, "related" to Butane reflecting the hollowness of such a criticism. It is sad that the relative innocence of the consumer is sought to be exploited through some of the "inspired" criticisms without valid scientific basis.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010


During these days of omnipotence of plastics which have invaded practically every facets of human life, the ancient process of canning is almost forgotten. Probably completion of two centuries since canning was invented in France, should evoke some memories of this wonderful technology which once served the admirable purpose of saving millions of tons of foods which otherwise would have gone waste. It is not that the 200 years old technology remained stagnant without any improvement over the years but its importance has been overwhelmingly diluted by other newer technologies due to many factors such as cost, convenience, ease of operation and logistics of waste disposal. All said and done canning technology is still a force to reckon with and cannot be wished away so easily. The progress of canning technology is reflected by the fact that more than 1500 different types of canned foods are made by the industry to day using metal cans and heat stable plastics of 600 different sizes and styles.

Looking back, history's most celebrated confectioner, Nicolas Francois Appert of France who is credited by many with the discovery of preservation of foods by packing in glass jars in the year 1810 or Peter Durand of Great Britain who pioneered the use of metal cannisters (the term can probably was derived from this) for packing in stead of glass jars could have imagined that this technology would lay the foundation of the modern food industry as seen to day. Credit also is due to the reputed French newspaper which offered 12000 francs to any one who invented a process that could preserve food in large quantities which was incidentally won by Nicolas Appert for his sealed glass jar process. As scientific inventions take time to mature, canning technology also made slow progress till 1940s and became a moder technology of choice in many countries. Early ears of using cylindrical tin cans or wrought-iron cannisters cannot be forgotten as they served the humanity well. It is hard to believe that during early stages of canned foods, there was not even a reliable and convenient tool to open the sealed cans before consumption of the contents. It was only in 1858 the can opener device was invented that made life easy for the consumers. It took more than 50 years for the process to become amenable to easy operation when average heating time came down dramatically from 6 hours to just 30 minutes. Modern day sanitary cans are designed sturdily with double seam closure mechanism, tin-free steel construction and welding of the body seam in place of the traditional lead containing solders. Flip open cans used commonly in beverage packing are made of aluminum with easy to open mechanism.

Many credit Louis Pasteur with the discovery of the science behind canning through his findings that microorganisms are responsible for food spoilage and heat can destroy such spoilage organisms and disease causing microbes. While canning is offered referred to as "Appertization" in honor of Nicolas Appert, the process of killing pathogenic microorganism through heat is called "Pasteurization" in memory of the great scientist-microbiologist Louis Pasteur. It is another story that the industry has been able to graduate into more efficient technologies like sterilization and aseptic packing which are the leading processes that preserve the quality and ensure safety of majority of foods in to day's market. With just simple pasteurization mankind would not have been able to deal with deadly bacteria like Clostridium bottulinum, notorious for its bottulism toxicity. The spores of this bacteria can survive at 100C for more than 300 minutes and resurface in the under favorable conditions. Use of pH manipulation to bring down the pH to less than 4.6 has still make it possible to achieve sterilization of liquid foods packed in cans using boiling water temperature. High Temperature Short Time process which is widely used to day is designed to take the temperature to levels as high as 135C when all microorganisms perish within a few seconds. Computation of Thermal Death Time (TDT) for typical pathogens and accurate estimation of processing time and temperature to achieve desired log reduction have made canning one of the safest processes with no chance of compromises on food safety.


Sunday, September 5, 2010


Why buttermilk, with which most people are familiar, is called so can be a futile task because not much reliable documented information is readily available. One of the anectodes that tries to explain the origin of butter refers to ancient horse riding nomads who hung the milk bags by the neck of their horses and in a few days found it separated into butter and butter milk. Butter was a monetary tool in ancient India 5000 years ago and mention of its association with Lord Krishna is considered proof of its popularity then. Even churning of curd is depicted in ancient epic Mahabharata, Reference to buttermilk also dates back some other civilizations in Asia, Africa and South America. Advent of yogurt made the utility of butter milk some what less with the former being the major fermented milk products from the dairy industry. How ever distinction between yogurt and butter milk is increasingly getting blurred and ultimately it boils down to consistency. While butter milk is more watery yogurt is usually set to different consistency with some versions amenable to clean cut.

The term buttermilk denotes the left over liquid after butter is churned out of fermented milk by traditional process and contains mainly proteins, carbohydrates, less than 1% fat and minerals. Home made buttermilk is obtained after seeding the boiled milk with lactic acid bacteria and subsequent churning to separate butter in granule form from the liquid. Probably the name must have come because it is obtained from the butter churn though it contains only a few specs of butter. Though buttermilk was retained by the families for self consumption as a drink or for making bakery products, after the commercialization of dairy operations, it was being discarded. It was only during the beginning of nineteen fifties that buttermilk started getting importance as a consumer product in the form of beverages and ingredient in baking.

Modern day butter milk products are made by mechanized production facilities with large through put capacities and involves prior cream separation after which the skimmed milk is "fermented" for 12-14 hours with lactic acid bacteria such as Streptococcus lactis, S.cremoris, Leuconostoc citrovorum, L.dextranicum etc singly or in combinations. After the fermentation it is cooled to about 7C for arresting the bacterial growth further and conferring a storage life of about two weeks under refrigerated condition. A typical buttermilk sample has 40 kC energy, 4.8% carbohydrates, 0,9% fat, 3.3 % protein and 116 mg% Calcium.

Indians use yogurt, also called "curd", extensively though commercial versions with reasonable shelf life under refrigerated conditions and diluted buttermilk, salted and spiced, is a drink often preferred during summer months for its cooling effect. Many dairies under the NDDB net work manufacture yogurt and distribute the same in plain LDPE pouches with a couple of days shelf life. In some areas two glasses of dilute plain butter milk is a standard feature of lunch. Amul's efforts to offer a stabilized version of butter milk in tetra packs for drinking as a beverage had limited commercial success, though the product was excellent in terms of quality and acceptability. Many road side vendors, especially in the North, sell buttermilk during hot season. Cost factor plays an important role in the success of any product however good it may be and considering that buttermilk is a highly nutritious beverage, GOI should consider this particular product for promotion by some fiscal incentives to the Dairy sector.

One wonders why the butter milk cannot be called "butterless milk"!


Friday, September 3, 2010


Cocoa plants grown abundantly in Ghana and other countries have provided mankind with one of the most exciting ingredients, creating the fabulous Chocolate industry turning out a multitude of products with universal appeal, irrespective of age, gender and faith. Leading players in the global arena include Mars Inc, Cadbury Schweppe, Nestle SA, Ferrero Sp, Hershey and Kraft Foods, with a combined market share of almost 75% in a global sale of $ 40 billion. There are a few niche companies also in the scene offering specialty chocolates with various attributes, though their share is less than 1%. Organic chocolate products, in great demand lately, are now available in the main stream market, the total production being around 15000 tons an year.

Cocoa production is concentrated in Africa and Asia and major producers include Ivory Coast (37% of world production), Ghana (21%), Indonesia (13%) accounting for more than 70% of about 35 million tons produced each year by about a dozen countries. Fair Trade cocoa, a distinctly separate category of cocoa production, is produced by several countries who have subscribed to the idea that ethical production can only be sustaining force for the industry to survive in the context of widespread use of child labor by cocoa plantations. It is sad that though many smaller producers have subscribed to the Fair Trade cocoa alliance, only two major producers, Ghana and Ivory Coast are members of this group. The Fair Trade label is now being used by some of the chocolate industry players to indicate that their products are derived from cocoa beans produced by fair means without circumventing any local and international regulations.

As cocoa is a rich source of antioxidants and other nutritional components, chocolate products containing significant levels of cocoa solids are being touted as a health promoting material and an entirely new branch of chocolate industry under the banner of "functional chocolates" is emerging to popularize their consumption in a big way. Unfortunately the health aspects are distorted to a large extent because chocolates by definition are rich in saturated fat and sugar. How can any one succumb to such claims knowing well that like other confectionery items chocolate also can cause same adverse effects like metabolic syndrome and dental decay. Typically a plain chocolate sample contains about 35 gm lipids and more than 60% carbohydrates including white sugar. But the four health promoting constituents in cocoa that include Theobromine, Caffeine, Phenylethylamine and Serotonin contribute to the favorable ratings received by chocolates. These phytochemicals are believed to be working at Central Nervous System and brain levels to promote a feeling of well being, boosting the mood and a feeling of elation. While a dark chocolate version will have about 70% cocoa component including cocoa butter, most of the commercial products have less than 7% cocoa solids.

It is amazing that almost one third of the consumers eating chocolates consider them as a well being product capable of stimulation and relaxation and it such feelings which are driving industry to expand the health chocolate portfolio on a furious pace. To day bitter chocolates with almost 85% cocoa solids are sold in the market under famous brand names. Specialty products like ActiCocoa containing high levels of antioxidants polyphenols, Probiotic Chocolates for gut health and Tooth-friendly chocolates containing isomaltose are marketed targeting the health conscious consumers. What is not condonable is tall claims like heart healthy and similar unsupported statements on the label by some of the responsible industry players and they are probably taking shelter under the ambiguous labeling provisions which do not call for declaring the concentration of antioxidants or polyphenols or the ORAC value which would have enabled the consumers to discriminate between performing and non-performing products.

The multi billion dollar chocolate industry is in for a shock if recent reports about cocoa hording in the UK are to be believed. It is believed that one of the notorious dealers in the UK, Anthony Ward had been buying cocoa beans from where ever they were available during the last few months and his present stock would be adequate to manufacture more than five billion standard chocolate bars! The consequence of his hording is a steep rice in the cocoa price in the London market reaching levels unheard of during the last 30 years. His firm Armajaro holds about 7% of annual cocoa production sufficient to dictate global price of cocoa beans. Though he does not make even a single bar of chocolate, his knowledge about cocoa makes him a formidable player in global trading and closely monitors production in west African countries through local set ups. Though chocolate makers in Europe are making noises about the market "cornering" activities of this UK hedge fund entrepreneur, how far the ultimate price of chocolates will rise eventually due to this phenomenon is uncertain.

While talking about price escalation in chocolate products, there are expectations that with fast approaching cocoa harvesting season beginning October, there might not be much of an impact from the activities of horders like Ward. Besides cocoa forms less than 10% of the production cost of most of the mass produced chocolates and the recent spurt in prices to the extent of 150% may not influence the market price of most of the end products from cocoa. Fears are expressed because a similar effort in 2002 by the same speculator did cause some damage to the chocolate industry from which it was able to recover quickly. Besides many of the major chocolate manufacturers did learn a lesson from the 2002 experience and probably would have built up sufficient stocks to last till the new harvest arrives in October.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Wheat market is getting more and more turbulent with Russia backtracking on its export commitments because of the severe drought ravaging the country. It is considered crucial that the global market is not allowed to "heat up" due to the temporary hiccup in grain production in one of the several countries that dominate wheat market in the world. Russia is 5th largest producer of wheat behind the EU, China, India and the US. According to market watchers what ever drop in global production has happened, that can be more than made up by the available stock in other countries like China, India, the US and Canada. India alone is sitting on a grain "mountain" estimated at 60 million tons (including rice), not knowing what to do with its surplus with severe constraint on domestic storage space for these grains. Any large export by India is considered fraught with the risk of price collapse in the world trade in wheat. It is unfortunate that there is no international cooperation amongst top producers to evolve a strategy to manage the present situation which is causing abnormal spurts in the price in the international market.

It may be recalled that a similar crisis occurred in 2008 when there was a severe drought in Australia leading to world wide shortages, fall in over all production and extensive embargoes on food export across Asia. This even led to "food riots" in Indonesia and Pakistan. At least one could understand the provocative but genuine cause for such disruption to global food supply at that time. The price of wheat, one of the major staples in the world shot up through the roof reaching $13 a bushel, a historical and unparalleled high in wheat price. But how is it possible that wheat prices are surging to day when there is a relatively small shortfall in production, that too in one country and global production recorded the third highest figure in history?. There is already dire forecasts that next years production would be less though such threat perceptions are generated by vested business interests, intent on creating opportunities to make unjustified profits on the fear of possible future shortage of wheat. It is feared that the consequences of such manipulations will ultimately affect the consumers in the rich as well as the poor countries. While higher wheat prices will reflect in higher prices for a wide range of wheat based consumer products like bread, biscuits, pizzas, rolls etc in industrialized countries, it will also affect poor and the hungry in the third world depending on imported wheat for survival. Who are going to be benefited by this unjustified distortion in wheat prices? Of course the rich farmers in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe who will laugh all the way to their banks with windfalls in wheat exports at high prices. Already farmers' organizations from the US are touring some of the Asian countries to bag orders for their wheat.

What is intriguing in the whole situation is why the Russians chose to announce the embargo on export now, even without waiting for the season to end? Are they in league with global wheat traders? After all Russia produced less than 50 million tons in 2007 while this year's projection was 90 million tons but they are still likely to harvest not less than 75 million tons. How can there be shortages there? Export commitments could have been met through bilateral consultations and accommodations with countries like India and China but it did not happen raising questions about the transparency of wheat trading system in the world. Is there no way to counteract the machinations of the wheat traders and ensure some stability in wheat prices? With massive subsidies that fatten the rich farmers in the US and Europe, it is very easy for these countries to raise wheat production but probably they may not do it because the scarcity will benefit their farmers in a big way. Considering that the US and India put together have more than 100 million tons of food grains in stock, the relatively small shortfall of production in Russia, should not have affected the global prices and a genuinely concerted effort by these countries with large stocks would have thwarted the efforts of speculators to ratchet up the prices under misplaced apprehensions. There is also the uncertainty regarding the attitude of China, top most producer of wheat in the world, to the present crisis, though they may not venture directly into global market for fear of escalation of domestic wheat prices. It is small consolation that the prices have not reached any where near the record highs in 2008 and there is still time for tackling this problem, given the dynamics of the situation.

In India's case there is already some apprehension that there would be a drop in production next year and this has clouded the thinking on the part of the government. As a knee-jerk reaction the high flying Food Minister has announced a slew of measures to augment the storage capacity, though no one is sure whether this would be translated into reality in the near future, knowing well the snail-like progress of government projects. Probably GOI could consider a strategic tie-up with Russia to loan to them some of the surplus grains for returning it next year when the production would pick up there, restoring normalcy in farming. By that time hopefully the new storage structures might be ready for use. Countries like China and the US have sufficient flexibility in their farming system to increase production within a short period. The present situation should not be allowed to be exploited by speculators for raising global prices that will affect the lives of millions of poor people who depend on purchase of wheat from international market by their countries. Led by Egypt the wheat importing countries in the third world constitute the largest net importers of wheat and they include Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Algeria, Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, Bangladesh etc accounting for more than 90% of the 70 million tons traded in the world.